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  • Teaching as ArtThe Contemporary Lecture-Performance
  • Patricia Milder (bio)

Actors representing the anonymous collective Bruce High Quality Foundation (BHQF) sang, "Whatever you ask for, that's what I'll be," and the rest of George Michaels's "Father Figure" in the karaoke ending to their lecture-performance Art History with Benefits. The performance took place at the X Initiative in Chelsea last November, as a part of Performa 09. It was one of many lecture-performances presented at the biennial; William Kentridge, Alexandre Singh, Guillame Desanges, and Terence Koh also performed their own wildly varied takes on the academic lecture. Seeing their work in rapid succession over the course of three weeks brought a few questions to mind: Why, for one, are so many visual artists attracted to this particular form of live performance? What is the precedent in art history, and how does this work compare to the lecture-performance being created in the dance and theatre worlds? I set out to discover the wide range of aesthetic and conceptual possibilities for the increasingly popular form.

Twentieth-century artists such Chris Burden, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Morris, Robert Smithson, and Joseph Beuys have used lecture-performance to blur the lines separating art from discourse about art. In contemporary performance, artists are continuing, in this tradition, to push past the boundaries of disciplines (Desanges, for example, is foremost an art critic and curator) as well as the boundaries between art and life. These are popular themes in contemporary art practice in general, but more specific to lecture-performance is the idea of teaching-as-art. The best lecture-performances always seem to originate from artists who believe that teaching itself is a central component of their artwork. Institutional critique also factors heavily in most iterations of the form. Though it is by no means the only conceptual framework for contemporary lecture-performance, I've found that the most interesting work of this kind comes from artists who meld a critique of institutional structures with a specific and idealistic view: the belief that consciousness stemming from teaching and learning can lead to a new way to live in society.

The BHQF uses the form to illuminate problems in the commercialized structure of the art world and art education. The choreographer Jérôme Bel explains the philosophical foundations of his works, which are often about exposing systematic structures in the dance industry, more directly than he has found possible through [End Page 13] movements of the body alone. Explanation, in his dances, is seen as the path toward the emancipation of performers and spectators, an idea borrowed from the writings of Michel Foucault. Other artists mine American history and traditional forms outside of art education. The National Theater of the United States of America (NTUSA) looks at the commercial history of the theatre as well as the history of early twentieth-century self-improvement lectures called Chautauquas. Sharon Hayes engages with the history of American political speech, especially the history of activist speech stemming from important twentieth-century political movements. These artists provide a small, cross-disciplinary sampling of lecture-performance as activism through education.

The Bruce High Quality Foundation

Back in November 2009 at X Initiative, when Michaels's song piped over the speakers at the end of BHQF's Art History lecture, slides that played during the lecture portion of the performance flashed by on the screen: photographs of Mariah Carey, Peggy Guggenheim, Andrea Fraser, Brooke Shields, and Jean Michel Basquiat. Through clear references to actual sex between the artists they've singled out and their sponsors (Fraser and her collector, Carey and her husband-producer Tommy Mottola, and so on), BHQF makes the obvious point about the relationship between artists, money, and the market. This is hardly a new juxtaposition: in Marina Abramović's Role Exchange (1975), she switched jobs with an Amsterdam prostitute for four hours. As in Abramovic's piece, sex isn't really the central issue for the BHQF. The collective uses these references, however, to help define their young male, intentionally obnoxious "bad boy" aesthetic.

The title Art History with Benefits refers to popular culture's "friends with benefits," sexual partnerships without emotional attachment...


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pp. 13-27
Launched on MUSE
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